Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer.

Philadelphia; a history of the city and its people, a record of 225 years (Volume 4) online

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received in both public and private expression the highest appreciation for an
approval of the skill and initiative spirit which he continually displayed in the
course of an active life, whose far-reaching influences are immeasurable.

He was born in Upper Darby, Delaware county, Pennsylvania, September
19, 1824, and was a representative of one of the oldest families of the Pennsyl-
vania colony. In the year 1682 Samuel and George Sellers, brothers, arrived
in Philadelphia from Belper, Derbyshire, England. The latter died unmarried.
The former wedded Anna Gibbons, and theirs was the first marriage recorded
in the Darby meeting of Friends. Samuel Sellers took up a tract of land in
Upper Darby, Delaware county, under the Penn patent and the property has
remained in possession of the family to the present generation. It was on a
portion of this that John and Elizabeth Sellers resided and it was there that
their son William Sellers was born. His paternal grandparents were John
and Mary Sellers and his maternal grandparents were William and Sarah Poole.
His ancestors have had a long and notable connection with science. The family
has been continuously represented in the membership of the American Philo-
sophical Society, and John Sellers, the grandfather, as a member of the Pennsyl-
vania legislature, was appointed by this society in connection with three other
members to observe the transit of Venus in 1761, one of the other members
being his maternal great-grandfather, William Poole.

William Sellers pursued his education in a private school built and main-
tained by his father and two relatives for the education of their children and for
nearly seven years served an apprenticeship to the machinist's trade under his
uncle, John Morton Poole, of Wilmington, Delaware. Thus began the develop-
ment of those talents with which nature endowed him and which was to lead
him to the foremost position in mechanical engineering circles in America. His


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second step in the business world brought him in 1845, at ^'le age of twenty-one
years, to the machine shop of Fairbanks, Bancroft & Company, of Providence,
Rhode Island, where three years' practical experience well qualified him for the
conduct of a business on his own account. In 1848 he began the manufacture
of machinist's tools and mill gearing at Thirtieth and Chestnut streets in Phil-
adelphia, and subsequently joined Edward Bancroft, who in the meantime had
removed from Providence, Rhode Island, to Beach street, Kensington. The
business was conducted under the firm style of Bancroft & Sellers until the
admission of John Sellers, Jr., to a partnership. The growth of the business led
to the erection of a new shop at Sixteenth and Pennsylvania avenue in 1853 and
there the enterprise was conducted without change until 1856, when the death
of Mr. Bancroft led to the adoption of the firm style of William Sellers & Com-
pany. Thirty years later the business was incorporated under the same name
with William Sellers as president. In the meantime he had extended the field
of his operations by organizing the Edgmoor Iron Company in 1868. Of this
he was also president and directed the operations of the two enterprises, the
constant growth of which brought them in time to mammoth proportions. The
Edgmoor Company furnished all the iron structural material for the buildings
of the Centennial Exhibition and also for the Brooklyn bridge, which they built,
with the exception of the suspension cables, furnished by the Roeblings. This
branch was the first in which steel eye-bars were used. At that time the Edg-
moor was the largest plant in the world for building bridges and other structures
of iron and steel. The further expansion of his business interests was noted in
1873, when Mr. Sellers became president of the Midvale Steel Company, of
Nicetown, Pennsylvania, which he subsequently reorganized and which under
his management became the first successful producer of material required by the
government for its steel cannon. The development of the business of the Edg-
moor Iron Company turned the inventive ability of Mr. Sellers in new directions
and a long series of mechanical devices was evolved to meet the changing re-
quirements of that business. The works were first started to make wrought iron
by mechanical puddling machinery of a new type, were subsequently changed to
a bridge shop and later a department was created for the luanufacture of
boilers of various kinds. Each step in this growth called for new machinery
and new methods and throughout the development Mr. Sellers' personality
dominated at every step. He was ever ready with suggestions for improvement
in plant and in appliances and he developed many original devices. Some of this
machinery followed along accepted lines but much was original in conception
and design. Among the more striking features may be mentioned a comprehen-
sive hydraulic plant for making upset rods and eye-bars, — the latter were first
made by a welding process and then of steel by upsetting and flattening, and
involved the use of a special and original annealing furnace for very long bars.
Again there were multiple punches and spacing mechanism for rapidly produc-
ing plate girder work without templates, hydraulic riveters, cranes, drills, boring
machines and many other devices for the rapid and effective production of
work. Each step developed new requirements and each found him ready with


The Journal Franklin Institute of May, 1905, said : "As a designer of ma-
chinery William Sellers had certain well defined ideas. Beauty of line and grace
of form were insisted on and he early adopted, if he did not invent, the dull
lead tint known as 'machine gray,' which has now almost entirely supplanted the
reds and greens and blacks of the early builders. Fitness for the purpose in-
tended, as he saw it, was the keynote and he had as much horror of unneces-
sary weight as he had of any other defect in proportion. In construction
nothing suited him but the best. He was never deterred by consideration of cost
if he saw a way of improving in design or construction. Absolute honesty of
purpose was his dominant characteristic and he would tolerate no deviation from
the standard of workmanship, no matter how tempting might be the occasion.
There was no thought of patching defects in workmanship or material. Nothing
was 'good enough' unless it was perfect. On one occasion while conducting a
friend, who was also engaged in the iron business, through the works, the lat-
ter commented on the absence of any bad castings and asked what method was
adopted to prevent their occurrence. 'We throw them away,' was the reply.
Jealous of his reputation, he set a high standard and followed it undeviatingly.
He had to a wonderful degree the courage of conviction and would follow out
his own conclusions without hesitation in the face of adverse opinion. In fact,
opinions had very little weight with him in professional matters but he would
always listen to reasons, and if the reasons appealed to him he would abandon
preconceived convictions readily and without apparent regret. He used to say
that he had no 'pride of invention,' and would readily give up an idea on which
he had long labored if convinced that something else offered was better. As
illustrating William Sellers' mechanical ingenuity and fertility of resources it
may be noted that he was granted about ninety United States patents, either
alone or in conjunction with others. The earliest was granted in 1857 and he
had patents pending when he died. These numerous patents granted to him alone,
or in association with co-inventors, cover a great variety of subjects — machine
tools, injectors, rifling machine, riveters, boilers, hydraulic machinery of various
sorts, furnaces, hoists, cranes, steam hammers, steam engines, ordnance, turn-
tables, pumps, etc. He also obtained many patents in foreign lands. Probably
the best known of his inventions is the spiral gear planer drive, in which the
table or platen is moved back and forth by a multi-thread screw on an inclined
shaft engaging with a rack on the under surface of the table — a device giving
the smoothness of a screw drive coupled with the convenience and efficiency of
the usual spur gear arrangement over existing methods and remains to this day
unexcelled. It was patented in 1862."

Frederick A. Halsey has aptly defined the late William Sellers' status as an
engineer in the following words: "Mr. Sellers has been called the Whitworth of
America, the work of the two men being largely on parallel lines and their in-
fluence in England and the United States being substantially the same. The
merit of Mr. Sellers' work is scarcely less than that of Mr.. (Sir Joseph) Whit-
worth, and when considered in connection with the greater difficulties to be met.
it is perhaps even greater. The machine building industry in this country was
then in a far more primitive condition than in England. The soil of the coun-
try was much less receptive of those advanced ideas which form the founda-


tion of Mr. Sellers' work. His work was from the beginning strikingly original,
so much so that to those whose ideas were based upon the undeveloped taste of
that time they seemed in, many cases almost outre. The writer recently saw still
in use, one of the early special lathes designed by Mr. Sellers for turning rail-
way axles, and so entirely different was it from any form of lathe made at that
time that it could scarcely have failed to impress the general observer as a
simple oddity. As a matter of fact, it was obviously the result of the keenest
analysis of the work to be done and of the strains to be carried by the machine
and the result was simply an adaptation of the form of the machine to these
strains — little less than a stroke of genius. While of course these machines
have been improved and made capable of a much larger output than this early
machine of Mr. Sellers', it is nevertheless not exaggerating to say that its out-
lines form today a model. It was this adaptation of the forms of his machine
to the strains to be carried by them that formed the keynote of Mr. Sellers'
method of design, and it was the fact that machines were then designed regard-
less of such principles that led his forms to appear so strange to those who looked
upon the prevailing forms as suitable. Mr. Sellers' methods, however, were
soon followed by other designers, and it is safe to say that, so far as modern
machines are better in this respect than those of half a century ago, the result
is very largely due to the influence of Mr. Sellers' work. This influence is seen
more and more in connection with the most recent designs of machines. The in-
fluence of tradition is far stronger in connection with these machines (which
in a sense became standard many years ago), than those of recent origin, and
it is therefore a curious fact that the most modern outlines are seen in machines
upon which the opportunity for improvement has prevailed the longest. Of his
individual achievements Mr. Sellers' name is best known in connection with the
Sellers or United States Standard Screw-thread, which he published in a paper
read before the Franklin Institute in 1864, at which time he was president of
the Institute. A similar effort toward standardization had been previously made
by Sir Joseph Whitworth, and Mr. Sellers' work was no doubt inspired by that
of Whitworth. The leading dififerences between the Sellers and the Whitworth
forms lie in the angle of the thread and in the fact that it has a flat top and bot-
tom instead of a round top and bottom. There has been much discussion re-
garding the merits of these two forms, of which both have their advantages,
but it is safe to say that from the strictly practical standpoint (of getting the
standard generally adopted) the Sellers form is the only one which would have
had aiiy chance of general adoption in this country at that time. It had the
commanding merit that it could be made with a common lathe tool, made in
the shop where used, whereas the Whitworth form required a special tool
which must be bought from a maker. In addition to the smaller tendency to re-
spect and follow authority in this country as compared with England lay the
physical obstacle due "to the widely scattered mechanical centers of the country,
the effect of which could only have been to defeat standardization should the
proposed standard involve the purchase of special tools for thread cutting. How
much of an influence this may have had with Mr. Sellers the writer does not
know but it may well have had a commanding influence."


Illustrative of the fact that Mr. Sellers would accept or have nothing to
do with anything that was not the best was an incident which occurred in 1890
when the navy department of the United States government at Washington sent
to leading manufacturers of machine tools elaborate specifications for an eight-
foot turning and boring lathe for sixteen inch steel cannon. This was a leviathan
lathe. Some idea of its dimensions may be gained when it is stated that the
main bed was seventy-three feet, ten and three-fourths inches long and nine feet
wide, the extension bed for carrying the boring arrangement was fifty-three
feet, five inches long, and five feet, two inches wide, making a total length of one
hundred and twenty-eight feet, three and three-fourths inches. The govern-
ment engineers designed this gigantic machine. Mr. Sellers did not approve of
their designs and refused to bid upon them, but he caused new designs to be
drawn embodying new principles, diflfering radically from the government's
drawings. On a day appointed Mr. Sellers appeared in person and explained
his design to the board of engineers in Washington, pointing out the merits of
his plans and so thoroughly convinced the board of their superiority that they
adopted the Sellers plans and discarded their own. This great lathe was built
by William Sellers & Company, Inc., and installed in the Naval Gun Factory in
Washington, D. C, where it has attracted the attention and admiration of en-
gineers from all parts of the world. The total weight of this machine was about
five hundred thousand pounds.

During a visit to England in i860, the attention of Mr. Sellers was called by
Sharp, Stewart & Company, of Manchester, to the Giffard injector for feeding
steam boilers, a model of which had been sent by Flaud et Cie., of Paris, for
the purpose of interesting English manufacturers. The device was crude in
design and was generally regarded as a mechanical paradox and an interesting
but unpractical toy. It contained, however, the elements of a novel principle,
and Mr. Sellers' immediate estimate of the value of the invention evinces the
accuracy of his judgment. American rights were at once obtained and royalties
paid to Sharp, Stewart & Company, until the expiration of the United States
patents. The same year a special department devoted to the manufacture was
added to the plant of William Sellers & Company, and the first injectors were
made from French drawings and patterns. Modifications of the original design
were introduced to adapt it to the American market and the present experimental
department established to eradicate defects of construction and to obtain a more
complete development of the principle. The necessity for automatic adjustment
was soon observed and Mr. Sellers invented and patented, in 1865, the self-ad-
justing combining tube, which automatically adjusted the supply of water to meet
the requirements of varying steam pressures and improved forms bearing patent
dates of 1876 and 1878 are still largely used.

Other interests diverted the trend of Mr. Sellers' inventive ability into other
channels and in his later years further experimental work was placed in the
hands of Strickland L. Kneass but he always retained his deep interest in the
subject. In 1888 the self-acting form, devised and patented by Mr. Kneass
was introduced, specially adapted to the high boiler pressure carried on locomo-
tive boilers, and met with immediate acceptance, being adopted by most of the
railways of France as the standard, so that injectors bearing William Sellers'


name supplanted Gififard's in the country of the inventor, besides being used
in almost every country and colony of the globe. In fact, it may be added, that
his name is as closely associated with the highest development of the locomotive
injector as it has been with the perfection of machine tools or the standard
screw thread.

Throughout an active business career in which constantly growing and mam-
moth enterprises made heavy demands upon his time and energies, Mr. Sellers
always found opportunity to cooperate in movements which he deemed of
value to the city, the state or the country at large. He was for some years
president of the Franklin Institute and his services as such had a critical period
in its history, in large measure constituting the strongest element in the transfor-
mation of the institute and in its subsequent advancement. He was elected a
member thereof in 1847 and so continued until his death, acting on its board of
managers from 1857 until 1861 and again from 1864 until 1892, inclusive. After
aiding to free the institute from heavy financial obligations incurred by an un-
fortunate investment of funds in the early '60s, the institute was reorganized
in 1864 and Mr. Sellers was chosen president, serving until 1867, his adminis-
tration being signalized by a notable increase in its activity.

The secretary of the institute writes: "Perhaps the most prominent incident
of his administration was the formulation by a special committee, of which he
was the chairman, of a uniform system of screw threads, which was presented
in the form of a report read at the stated meeting of the institute, held Septem-
ber 15, 1864. (See the Journal, January, 1865.) This report, with its sugges-
tions, was approved by the institute and within a comparatively few years the
system of screw threads proposed therein was officially adopted by the United
states government in its workshops, by the leading railroad companies, prominent
machine tool builders and others under the various names of United States,
Sellers or Franklin Institute systems. It is now in universal use throughout the
country." The Journal of the Institute in this connection says: "Other at-
tempts had been made to standardize threads for screws but William Sellers
was the first to devise a set of proportions and reduce them to formulse so that
the proper size, shape and pitch for a given diameter of screw can be deter-
mined without comparison with a predetermined list. The angle and the trun-
cated form of screw thread proposed by Mr. Sellers, which became the standard
for the United States, were adopted by the International Congress for 'L'Unifi-
cation Des Filetages et des Gauges,' held at Zurich, in October, 1901." In re-
viewing the life and attainments of William Sellers, it is proper to allude to
the numerous awards given at various international expositions to the house of
which he was the senior and after incorporation the president, as well as to the
honors conferred upon him as an individual in recognition of his genius as an
inventor and constructor of machinery. At Vienna, in 1873, in addition to five
bronze medals there was awarded the grand medal of honor upon the following
recommendation of the jury, namely: "Sellers. For preeminent achievements
in the invention and construction of machine tools, many of which have been
adopted as patterns by the constructors of tools in all countries." This diploma
was awarded exclusively by the council of presidents as was, as therein stated :
"Designed to bear the character of peculiar distinction for eminent merits in


the domain of science and its application to the education of the people and the
advancement of the intellectual, moral and material welfare of man." The fol-
lowing extract from the report of the judges appointed for the examination of
Group XXI (machine tools) at the Centennial Exhibition will suffice to indicate
the nature of the award given to William Sellers & Company for their exhibits.
"The undersigned, having examined the products herein described, respectfully
recommend the same to the United States Centennial Commission for award
for the following reasons, namely : For a remarkable collection of machine tools
for working metal. This exhibit, when considered in regard to its extent and
value, its extraordinary variety and general excellence, as also for the large
amount of originality that is shown in the numerous devices that are introduced,
is probably without a parallel in the past history of international exhibitions,
and, taken as a whole is worthy of the highest honor that can be conferred.
Besides it is thoroughly national in its characteristics and preeminently worthy
of the United States and of the grand occasion of the Centennial Exposition.
Every single machine, tool or piece of apparatus that is displayed in this vast
offering would for itself command the strongest recommendation for an award,
even if it stood alone as a unit; but here every unit is surrounded by thirty-
three distinct machines, each one being of the highest standard in its particular
class. The whole of these machines are characterized by extreme refinement
in detail; by the superior quality of the material employed in their construction;
by first class workmanship, both in regard to nice fitting and precision and for
the mathematical accuracy of all the parts; by the beautiful outlines that are
imparted to each structure; by the correct proportions that have been worked
out in the determining of strength and form; and the disposal of material to
take its full share of duty. For the scientific skill displayed in the application
of mechanical force, for the daring shown in fearlessly breaking through the
trammels of the past by introducing variously constructed devices and arrange-
ments of gearing for the transmission of power in more direct course to the
point of action, yet maintaining correct construction mechanically and without
departure from true principles. As it is impossible to realize the full measure
of such refined mechanical, scientific and artistic merit, by the foregoing re-
marks, it is deemed necessary to enumerate briefly some of the more prominent
points in the several machines, both in justice to the exhibitor and to the judges."
Here followed a description of twenty-two distinct exhibits. Remarkable as
was the foregoing tribute to an American exhibit of machine tools, it was still
more gratifying from the fact the jury was composed of men of various nations
having international reputations, as the following list of names will show: John
Anderson, LL., D., C. E., etc., Woolwich Arsenal, Great Britain ; Professor
C. A. Angstrom, Sweden ; August Gobert, Jr., Belgium ; F. Reif er, Austria ;
M. Le Commandant F. Perrier, France; George H. Blelock, Springfield, Massa-
chusetts; N. F. Durfee, New York; Professor J. A. Anderson, Manhattan, Kan-
sas. Dr. John Anderson, Mechanical head of Woodwich Arsenal, was the chair-
man of this group.

To give detailed accounts of all the awards made in past years to William
Sellers & Company at the various national and international expositions would
necessarily extend this article beyond the prescribed limits. The following list



must therefore suffice without further comment thereon: 1854, Frankhn Insti-
tute, Philadelphia, silver medal; 1857, Maryland Institute, Baltimore, silver
medal; 1867, World's Fair, Paris, gold medal; 1869, American Institute, New
York, six medals; 1873, World's Fair, Vienna, five medals and grand diploma
of honor; 1876, Centennial Exhibition, five medals and report of international
jury; 1880, Imperial Technological Society, St. Petersburg, one medal; 1883,
Exhibition of Railway Appliances, Chicago, one gold medal, four silver medals ;
1889, World's Fair, Paris, grand prize; 1904, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St.
Louis, grand prize and gold medal. He had the honor of election to membership
in the National Academy of Science in 1873. William Sellers & Company, In-
corporated, have made no competitive display at any exhibition other than those

Online LibraryEllis Paxson OberholtzerPhiladelphia; a history of the city and its people, a record of 225 years (Volume 4) → online text (page 20 of 62)